What Works to Involve Postgrads?

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As a general rule Student Unions suffer from greatly lowered involvement from postgraduate students relative to undergraduate, even when the difference of the population of the two groups is taken into account. Students' Unions use a varying but often limited range of postgraduate specific provisions, for example postgraduate specific sports teams or societies, to improve the involvement of their postgraduate members, with differing levels of success. The NPC also lists within its resource folder a number of ideas for postgraduate provision by Students' Unions.

It is evident that not all of the different provisions are of equal effectiveness or value for money; some are better than others. The purpose of this project is not to dream up new kinds of ideas for the NPC to recommend and Unions to utilise, but to rate the efficacy of existing provisions based on the experience of those that provide them; the Union officers themselves. To that end a survey was generated, tested on the students of the University of Nottingham Postgraduate Students' Association, and distributed to every union on the NPC lists. This survey presented recipients with a list of provisions commonly made available specifically to postgraduate students by Students' Unions, and requested that they score each of them out of five for how well they work to increase postgraduate involvement in the recipient's Union.

The idea behind this survey was simply that on average the most useful measures should in principle accrue the highest scores, with variation due to bad implementation or management ironed out somewhat by the averaging. This information would then be used to advise unions on the steps they need to take to increase said involvement. There may also prove to be some meaningful nuance to the data received, such as how well the average scores vary, compare to the average of the "Overall" box, or what variation in the standard deviation of scores would indicate.

The survey and the provisions rated are as follows:

Survey content

Survey returns have been processed and are presented in the following table, the "staff support" and "other" boxes relate to a potentially vast variety of provisions, and were in place in case an important recurring position was not present in the rest of the survey. In practise these boxes were rarely used by the survey's recipients and so shall be disregarded.

Average Score Standard Deviation
Sabbatical Officer 3.7 1.4
Executive Officer 3.2 1.6
Representational PG Officer 3.7 1.1
Course Representatives 2.9 1.3
Seats on Standing Committees 2.9 1.3
Association or Society 4.0 0.7
Sports Clubs 3.7 1.2
Social Space 3.0 1.2
Work Space 3.2 1.6
Overall 2.9 0.6
Cross Category Average 3.3 1.2

The scores are also presented in the following chart:

Results chart

Amongst this data certain trends stand out; postgraduate associations, sports clubs and dedicated officers, including non-sabbatical officers, are all highly rated and should be considered an essential recommendation for Students' Unions. The caveat is that although opinions were high overall for sabbatical officers, the variation was considerable, indicating that they are a provision that can easily fail if managed poorly. Another interpretation of course could be that a bias for postgraduate officers when rating their own roles, considering the mixture of sabbatical and non-sabbatical officers who responded to the survey. The only other result which garnered mixed opinion in score was the provision of postgraduate work space, which perhaps counter-intuitively was generally seen as more useful than equivalent social space.

The two relatively lowest scoring categories both relate to the less glamorous sections of Students' Unions, academic representation and organisation, making their scores not particularly surprising in the context of improving involvement, although both provisions serve other important functions in their own right.

Results chart

The most interesting results of the survey are cleaned from the overall sweep of the data, which is that not one provision was actually badly rated. Nothing scored below 2.9 out of five on average, and yet officers rated their Union's overall ability to involved postgraduate students at a score on par with the least useful individual provision, which begs the question that if Unions are providing so many effective activities and services, why are they relatively ineffective at involving postgraduate students?

The answer I posit is that Student's Unions on average simply don't do enough to involve postgraduate students. The ideas and methods aren't wrong, only the resources set behind them. This doesn't come as a shock, not for such a large group with a culture so distinctive to that of a "typical" student, not for the tiny variety of provisions so often found in Unions. Before Union Officers ask whether they're doing the right thing, they should question whether they are doing enough things to begin with.